A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.
Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)
Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”
Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.
However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.
For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.
I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.
Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.
So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)
On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.
How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?
Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.
For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.
On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?
When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.
“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.
With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.
You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”
The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.
In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)
Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.
And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.
I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.
There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”
I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?
This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!
Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.
(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)
Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.
(See also: “Just call the police!”)
So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?
Here are some scripts:
- “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
- “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
- “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
- “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”
Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.
In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.
Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.